Tenth Army Commander: The World War II Diary of Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr.

  • Published

Tenth Army Commander: The World War II Diary of Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr., edited by Christopher L. Kolakowski. Casemate Publishers, 2023, 240 pp.

Although a multitude of ego-documents—diaries, letter collections, and other texts in which authors detail their personal lives and experiences—of World War II commanders have been published, Christopher Kolakowski offers the first complete version of Lieutenant General Simon Bolivar Buckner Jr.’s World War II diary, previously published in part by Nicholas Sarantakes in Seven Stars: The Okinawa Battle Diaries of Simon Bolivar Buckner, Jr., and Joseph Stilwell (2004). Kolakowski is a military historian who has written on the India-Burma campaigns and selected battles of the American Civil War.

Buckner, the son of Confederate general and former Kentucky governor Simon Bolivar Buckner and Delia Hayes Claiborne, served as the commanding general of the Alaska Defense Command before being promoted to command the Tenth Army. He led the successful invasion of Okinawa, one of the largest and bloodiest sea-land-air engagements in military history. The diary covers the time from January 1, 1944, to June 17, 1945—right up to Buckner’s death by enemy artillery fire on Okinawa. The editor augmented the diary with letters to Buckner’s wife, Adele, and a death account written by the Tenth Army’s chief of staff. In addition, Kolakowski provides an introduction, a biographical sketch of Buckner, and an attempt in the last chapter to briefly reassess the general’s performance in World War II. The diary is divided into logical sections, mainly according to Buckner’s geographical location or present duties. In between several sections, Kolakowski offers brief paragraphs providing context between the sections and sparse annotations to the diary.

As one of the four highest ranking US casualties of World War II, Buckner is known primarily because of his death, rather than his accomplishments in life. When surveying part of the battlefield on Okinawa, he was hit in the chest by a stone fragment accelerated by a close impact from a Japanese 47mm shell. Before Okinawa, Buckner had never seen battle and was thus a controversial selection for a first combat command of a difficult battle, where the majority of subordinate senior commanders were veterans. By that time of the war, several tried-and-tested corps commanders were available to be promoted for the Army command, yet US Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall chose Buckner.

Marshall made the decision for Buckner very likely on the basis of two considerations. Primarily, Marshall himself had longed for combat command throughout his career. During World War I in particular, he had little opportunity to move from staff positions into combat. Thus, for the rest of his career, Marshall believed that anyone capable of leading a combat command should be given that chance. Buckner, he reasoned, was one such leader.

Secondly, the Pacific theater of war was a diplomatic minefield of service rivalries between the Marines, Army, and Navy, with a mercurial General Douglas McArthur as commander of the Southwest Pacific Theater thrown into the potentially volatile mix. For Buckner, these inevitable rivalries, fueled by US Armed Forces culture, already plagued his time at Alaska Defense Command. By circulating a poem he penned—which can be found in the diary—about the timidity of Navy Admiral Robert A. Theobald, the North Pacific Force commander, in which he expressed his critical views of the Navy’s actions in the North Pacific, Buckner had accrued the enmity of Navy officers, nearly leading to his removal from command. Yet he had learned his lesson well, and from then on, he treaded much more carefully among members of the other services, which helped him in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Because of the many strong personalities involved, it was generally impossible for military officials to work equally well with everyone, but most recognized that Buckner clearly had made an effort to do so. That impressed Marshall and the Navy high command enough to warrant his selection to Tenth Army Command.

The highest level of diplomatic acumen was required of Buckner when he was charged with chairing a board of inquiry following the controversial Army-Marine interservice rivalry during the Battle of Saipan in June 1944. During the battle, Marine Corps Lieutenant General Holland Smith abruptly relieved Army Major General Ralph Smith, commander of the 27th Infantry Division, of his position, citing the Army general’s inability to follow an attack order and the overall lack of aggressiveness as the reason. The diary reveals some of the pressure from Buckner’s peers to obtain a damnation of one general or the other. The final verdict—“his view,” according to Buckner—was a study in diplomatic equivocation: according to the report Holland Smith was in his right to relieve Ralph Smith but did not know sufficiently the situation in the latter’s battle area. Depending on one’s perspective this satisfied everyone and no one. Those who wanted to carry on with the war—fortunately, the majority—used the report’s vague language as a means to put the issue behind them. Those who harbored ill-will toward the other service used the report’s lack of clarity to voice their own opinion publicly or undertake their own analysis, finally battled out in the newspapers.

Regrettably, Kolakowski uses Tenth Army Commander as a forum to re-evaluate Buckner, to garner him greater appreciation as a historical military figure and possibly grant him higher esteem among US Army commanders. This leads to inevitable biases in judgment. Further, the diary furnishes information that contradicts the justification for Buckner’s re-evaluation among the ranks of such commanders.

The diary reveals Buckner to be an orthodox, narrow-minded officer obsessed with the outdoors and social activities. The first part of the diary covering the Alaska Command offers little insight into Buckner’s military efforts but a plethora of his hunting accomplishments, his interest in flora and fauna, as well as issues with his rifles and dogs. Social activities are recorded in minute detail. Notably absent are matters of tactics, leadership, and operational planning. Contemporaries, most notably General Joseph Stilwell, who would succeed Buckner in command after his death, often complained that they would hear little other than wisecracks from him. Perhaps this was a mechanism by Buckner to avoid being embarrassed by any in-depth discussion about operational matters. Of all the senior officers’ diaries I have read, Buckner’s is the only one I can recall where the officer either mixes up or mistakenly references the numerical designations of units under his command.

If it is true that people write about matters that concern them the most in their diaries, Buckner was mostly concerned by issues other than military ones. This changed only after Buckner assumed command of the Tenth Army; still, here, the lack of military depth of his contemplations is telling. While Buckner reserved some key decisions for himself, the majority of planning appears to have been accomplished by his staff, something not done under other notable Army commanders such as Omar Bradley, Stilwell, George Patton, Lucian Truscott, and Robert Eichelberger.

One of these key decisions was the order to accelerate Phase II after encountering only light resistance following the initial landings on Okinawa. Kolakowski hails this decision as a “bold” move that demonstrated Buckner’s “aggressiveness” (236). Yet accelerating such a timetable when confronting limited resistance falls under the common sense section of a commander’s portfolio. Whether this decision significantly sped up the overall campaign is unclear because the hard fighting came later.

A second key decision was to forgo another landing behind the Japanese defensive line and instead opt for a slow and methodical breaching of the defensive line and reduction of pockets of defense by frontal attack. While amphibious experts like the Marines were all for such a landing to envelope the enemy, Buckner feared “another Anzio—but worse,” referring to the landings at Anzio just a few months earlier, which were conducted in the rear of the German defense line to break the stalemate in Italy (186). The Germans reacted swiftly with a mechanized force that nearly pushed the Allied units back into the sea. The Allies hung on by their fingernails, until overwhelming firepower and a new commander finally allowed a breakout. The timid leadership and negativity displayed in the command of the landing force cost Major General John P. Lucas his job. Buckner likely had this event in mind rather than the danger for the beachhead. Yet Japan had little even remotely comparable to what the Germans mustered on quality and maneuver forces, and the Okinawa landing area was geographically much smaller than Anzio. Buckner could have supported his landing force with much greater firepower.

Overall, Tenth Army Commander is a curious publication. It offers little value for a layperson or history buff due to its sparse editing and bias. Nearly all readers will be better served with one of the excellent accounts of the Battle of Okinawa in which Buckner’s decisions are discussed in more depth. Yet for a historian, the diary itself still represents invaluable source material.

Jörg Muth, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."